The various stylistic and technical devices adopted by documentary filmmakers can work to create an engaging and informative insight into any given subject. By creatively employing the use of such devices, the filmmaker is able to present the viewer with a subjective depiction of reality, provoke an emotional response or entice the viewer to question the very notion of truth itself. However, the ability for the filmmaker to present the viewer with a completely objective ‘truth’ is limited by the camera’s presence, the participants hidden agenda’s and the embedded ideologies in the subject, filmmaker and viewer. While the filmmaker may explore the issues surrounding the truth, their ability to present the viewer with an unmediated representation of the truth is beyond the means of any filmmaker.

Although the stylistic approach of the documentary filmmaker may work to create an aesthetical depiction of reality, this doesn’t guarantee an objective representation of ‘the truth’. In Dont Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967), D.A. Pennebaker employs the use of hand held, shaky camera work, making the viewer feel as if they are a privileged witness to ‘behind the scenes’ actions of Bob Dylan, unfolding naturally in front of the camera. The grainy footage, unbalanced framing, synchronous sound, natural lighting (often dark) and long take compositions further work to produce the illusion of complete access to reality. However, this observational (Cinema Verite/Direct Cinema) approach can still be highly subjective, as not only does Pennebaker have the power to decide when to film and when not to, but who to turn his camera on.

While focusing on Bob Dylan as the central subject of the film, Pennebaker’s (often) close up shots of Dylan consequently ignore potentially significant events and information that occur ‘off-screen’ – such as the reactions of others. In one scene, we see Dylan mounting a verbal assault on a reporter from Time Magazine. Here, Pennebaker gives an unbalanced amount of ‘on screen’ time to the two subjects in favor of Dylan. To further perpetuate this inequality, the audio levels of the reporter are at best barely audible, confirming the subjective disposition of cinema verite sound recording and favouring Dylan’s perspective by giving the reporter a ‘weak’ voice.

This use of hand held camera work is not limited to the boundaries of documentary film and can therefore not be seen as a definitive account of the real but as merely producing the ‘effect’ of reality. Fictional films such as The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez, 1999) and This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984) have adopted similar techniques to portray the illusion of eyewitness footage. However, the majority of viewers are able to distinguish this as fiction due to pre existing knowledge or the satirical nature of the film. The reception of the documentary as ‘truth’ doesn’t rely on technical or stylistic traits, but on the audience’s perception and believability of the text.

Similarly, non-fiction films are able to adopt the stylistic, technical and narrative devices of fictional films without being projected and perceived as fictitious. In Forbidden Lie$ (Anna Broinowski, 2007), Broinowski exceeds the established conventions of documentary film by combining many elements of fictional films. Here, Broinowski incorporates dramatic elements typical of a Hollywood narrative, including: a three act structure, protagonist and antagonist (Norma Khouri), established motifs (TV screens), music and sound effects, conflict, suspense and multiple dualities (good/evil, men/woman, east/west). These devices work to give her film the effect of a “Hollywood thriller” (Buckmaster, para 11) centered on ‘the hunt’ for the killer or victim, in this case ‘the truth’ about Khouri. Placed in context with the rest of the film, which establishes non-fictitious events through providing indexical evidence – such as legal documents and testimonials from authoritative professionals and witnesses, these narrative devices work to engage the viewer rather then discredit the ‘story’.

This highly reflexive film echoes and mocks the lies of Norma Khouri by bringing constant attention to its own constructed nature. By doing this it seeks to go beyond the deceptive surface of things to show the audience how easily ‘the truth’ can be twisted and people manipulated. In order to evoke an emotional response from the viewer, the film uses actors to show the dramatic re-enactment of Dalia’s death. This scene is later reprieved, only this time allowing for the actors to break in to laughter and the camera to pull back to reveal the constructed film set. This technique works to undercut the legitimacy of Khouri’s story and encourage the viewer to reflect on it. While this directorial interpretation is not trying to manipulate the audience by claiming to show them the truth, its obviously constructed image works to encourage the viewer to actively form his or her own opinion.

Similarly, Pennebaker employs a number of narrative devices within Dont Look Back in order to create an engaging and provocative piece of work. At the beginning of the film the viewer is presented with an MTV style clip of Dylan flipping cards with lyrics (and some satirical words) on them in time to his latest single Subterranean Homesick Blues (Dylan). This ‘scripted’ opening scene, using non-diegetic sound, ‘actors’ and a tripod, contradicts the observational style of the majority of the film and acts as a introduction to the rest of the film. Similarly, there are a number of reoccurring motifs that shape the structure of the film such as the critique of mainstream media and Dylan’s obsession with and mocking of Donavon. It is not the use of fictional or narrative devices such as these that work to discredit a work as ‘the truth’, but rather, other contributing factors as perceived by the audience.

Despite the best intentions of the filmmaker to present the viewer with an unmediated representation of their subjects, the social actors can actively shape and project a contrived image of themselves in order to serve their own agenda. Consciously aware of the cameras presence at all times, the subject is able to self-sensor their behavior, or alternatively, play up to the camera by adopting a desired persona. In Forbidden Lie$, Khouri is a well-rehearsed ‘actress’ both on-screen and off – who is highly skilled at playing out various roles  (The victim, the heroine, the provocateur) in order to manipulate and self-consciously construct an image for herself. Well aware of this, Broinowski incorporates the repetitive use of Khouri’s image on television and computer screens both while she is present and when other subjects are watching her speak. This creative technique is used to constantly reinforce the notion of ‘acting’, that in the public eye, Khouri is actively shaping an ‘on screen’, celebrity like persona for herself.

Click here for Part II of Truth in Documentary. If you’re digging ReelGood, sign up to our mailing list for exclusive content, early reviews and chances to win big!